Wednesday, April 16, 2014

South Korea: Ferry Carrying 459 Passengers from Seoul Enroute to Jeju Capsizes, Nearly 300 Missing

According to The Associated Press, nearly 300 people were still missing Wednesday (April 16) several hours after a ferry carrying 459 people, most of them high school students, sank in cold water off South Korea's southern coast, killing at least two and injuring seven, officials said.

Tragically, there are real fears that a huge jump in the death toll could occur, as dozens of boats, helicopters and divers scrambled to rescue passengers who had been on the ferry traveling to the southern tourist island of Jeju. One passenger said he believed that many people were trapped inside the ferry when it sank.

The ferry sent a distress call at about 0900 hours local time on Wednesday after it began leaning to one side, according to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration. The government said about 95% of the ferry, whose passengers included 325 high school students on a school trip to the popular tourist island, was submerged.

Official estimates of the missing, dead and even the number of passengers on the ship varied wildly as the search continues. A government official had earlier said that more than 100 people were unaccounted for, but officials later boosted the number to 295 missing and then changed it to 293.

Media graphics revealed wet students, some without shoes, some wrapped in blankets, tended to by emergency workers. 

COMMENT: It should be noted that the ferry was only 50% at capacity when the vessel capsized.

Unfortunately, the water temperature was at 12 degrees Celsius (54 Fahrenheit), cold enough to cause signs of hypothermia after about 90 minutes or 2 hours.

Officials said mud on the ocean floor rendered underwater search operations difficult. The ship sank in waters several kilometers (miles) north of Byeongpung Island, which is near the mainland and about 470 kilometers (290 miles) from Seoul, according to the Coast Guard.

One passenger said that after having breakfast he felt the ferry tilt and then heard it crash into something. He said the ferry operator made an announcement asking that passengers wait and not move from their places.

The students are from a high school near Seoul and were on their way to Jeju island for a four-day trip, according to a relief team set up by Gyeonggi Province, which governs the city. 

The ferry left Incheon port, just west of Seoul, on Tuesday evening (April 15), according to the state-run Busan Regional Maritime Affairs and Port Administration. The trip from Incheon to Jeju is usually about 14 hours, so the ferry was about three hours from its destination when it made the distress call.

Officials said dozens of navy and coast guard divers, more than eight government boats, eleven helicopters and eight private fishing boats were helping with rescue efforts.

This report will be updated as soon as new information becomes available.